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Whither transparency?

There is a feeling among some members of the Congress party that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity is on the wane. Verbal attacks against the current dispensation led by Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi have spurred fellow party members into action. Many of the criticisms laid out by the Gandhi scion, though, have failed to cut ice with the larger public. Unlike earlier statements by senior Congress leaders, Sonia Gandhi’s statement in Parliament must have stung the present dispensation. “In a blatant U-turn, his government, through the absence of a Chief Information Commissioner, has made sure that the highest offices are not accountable under the RTI Act,” she said. This is not to suggest that the Congress party has suddenly become the beacon of transparent politics. One does remember the time when cabinet ministers in the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government tried to bury the Right to Information Act, before a media-led intervention.

Activists across the country are of the firm belief that the present dispensation has taken the sting out of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. Over the years, the Right-to-Information Act has emerged as a powerful tool for the Indian public to promote transparency and hold those in power accountable. Eliciting information from the government, they argue, has become nearly impossible. In a written reply to the Lok Sabha in February, the Centre said that close to 38,000 second appeals under the RTI are pending with the Central Information Commission (CIC). In response to a recent petition, an activist has told the Delhi High Court that RTI applications relating to PMO, defence ministry and HRD ministry have been pending before the CIC with the number of pending appeals and complaints mounting to 14,000.

The CIC is the top agency entrusted with the implementation of the RTI. The state oaf the CIC is a definitive indicator of how the dissemination of public interest-related information has broken down. The commission has been working without a chief for more than eight months, ever since the last incumbent Rajiv Mathur put in his papers. Also, against the sanctioned strength of 10, it has only seven information commissioners. So much so that the Delhi High Court asked the senior most information commissioner to hear a case in the absence of CIC and resolve the problem of pending cases. As per the Act, applications and first appeals are required to be disposed off within 30 days of their receipt. For second appeals, however, no time limit has been prescribed for its disposal. 

Due to vacancies at the CIC, officials have begun to withhold information, forcing RTI applicants to go for multiple appeals.  In addition, the Whistleblower’s Protection Act, which was passed by Parliament in February 2014, is yet to be operationalised because the present dispensation has been slow to frame the rules necessary for its implementation. With around 4.5 million RTI requests being generate every year, information delayed is information denied.
Agencies

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